Best of 2016

40. Hortlak – Hortlak

39. Striker – Stand In The Fire

38. Skuggsjá – A Piece for Mind and Mirror

37. Predatory Light – Predatory Light

36. Taken – Taken

35. Metal Church – XI

34. Nucleus – Sentient

33. Garroted – In The Court of Nyarlathotep

32. Pariah – One

31. Hail Spirit Noir – Mayhem in Blue

30. Void Omnia – Dying Light

29. Grotesque Deity – At The Blackest Way to Death

28. Éohum – Ealdfaeder

27. Wode – Wode

26. Bewitcher – Bewitcher

25. Schammasch – Triangle

24. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones

23. Agatus – The Eternalist

22. Eternal Champion – The Amore of Ire

21. Mesarthim – .- -​.​.​. .​.​. . -. -​.​-​. .

20. High Spirits – Motivator

Sometimes you need metal to make you smile and feel good about yourself. Fresh off the last-ever Dawnbringer release, Professor Black brings his melodic ear to the best High Spirits album yet. Stripped down, short, and to-the-point, Motivator is the best kind of self-esteem boost.

19. Sentient Horror – Ungodly Forms

This is how you revisit the glory days of early 90s Swedish Death Metal. Better than the most recent Bloodbath album, Sentient Horror received the seal of approval from Dan Swanö himself, who handled the mastering on this no-frills barrage of pounding riffery.

18. Nordjevel – Nordjevel

Nordjevel is a collective of unknown scene veterans, but what they lake in fame they make up for with experience. The debut came out of nowhere and instantly became of my favorite no-frill second wave albums in years. The production is massive, and the riffs icy as Abbath’s heart.

17. Denouncement Pyre – Black Sun Unbound

I never really got into Watain. Their power seemed to be in their image and stage spectacle, rather than their Dissection-light approach to songwriting. Thankfully, many realized their flaws that after first hailing them as the second coming, but their celebrity might never have faded if their music was as powerful as Denouncement Pyre’s. Their brand of epic black/death metal is monstrous, massive and worthy of a much larger stage.

16. Nocturne – Nocturne

Hot on Mgła’s heels is Austria’s Nocturne with their brand of melodic, riff-heavy exhortations. While much of the album is forgettable, it earns its keep with a few choice moments – not least of which is the major key, pop-punk inspired “Ama Lilith”. Green Day gone grim sounds like.

15. Phazm – Scornful of Icons

Phazm, whose early albums showcased a forward-thinking blend of tech death and doom, could have kept along that same path and made a name for themselves. Instead, they called it quits in 2009 and didn’t resurface until March’s Scornful of Icons. The band has reinvented themselves as a death n’ roll force to be reckoned with by using ever-changing, yet constantly catchy riffs complemented by a rollicking, always present bass. And it’s all held together by some intense throat singing and deep sense of groove.

14. Bölzer- Hero

After exploding onto the scene a few years back, Bölzer managed to entrance the metal world and tour relentlessly on the strength of just a handful of songs. Their sound is so singular, so powerful, that they represented something truly new in extreme metal. Much to everyone’s surprise, their debut full-length doesn’t showcase any of what made them such scene darlings. Showcasing vastly different vocal styles than before, the Swiss duo explore some unholy bastardization of stoner-tinged death metal. It’s ethereal and enchanting, but gone of the epic riffs on which they built their following. The atmosphere is world-class, though, and after a few listens it becomes clear that Bölzer are here to stay no matter what they sound like.

13. Convulse- Cycle of Revenge

A slowed-down, groovier, and downright catchy sharp turn from one of Finland’s first DM giants might just be the first true example of a progressive death n’ roll album. The light guitar tone dances nicely with bowl-rumbling deep growls which in turns mixes splendidly with 60s-style psychedelic guitar solos. Their take on Wolverine Blues by way of Amorphis is one of the best experiments of the year.

12. Vindland – Hanter Savet

Within seconds of this album starting it’s clear Vindland are something special. Aggressive folkiness can only be mixed with black metal by the most accomplished musicians, and these Frenchmen are just that. With an unreal ear for melody Vinland infuse a rich, layered sound into their hymns and ended up with a debut for the ages.

11. Blood Incantation – Starspawn

Taking cues from 90s underground stalwarts Timeghoul but stretching it to its logical extreme, Blood Incantation somehow managed to take an old idea and make it entirely new. With absolutely gorgeous production and serpentine song structures, this is easily the year’s most enthralling slab of death metal.

10. Hammers of Misfortune – Dead Revolution

Beefing up their sound again after 2011’s stripped-down 17th Street, the Bay Area heroes are back in top form after a long hiatus. Cobbett’s riffs are as glorious as ever and the rest of the band fire on all cylinder’s to create yet another entrancing collection of proggy heavy metal.

9. Sarcoptes – Songs and Dances of Death

Quite possibly the best Emperor worshipping album in history, Sacramento’s Sarctoptes debut with this unbelievable piece of 90s throwback. Gorgeous keys, deadly riffs, and not a second of respite, Songs and Dances of Death is just that – and endless black assault without peers.

8. Serious Black – Mirrorworld

Lean power metal is a rare breed in Europe. The continent’s style is for the most part overly grandiose and verbose with massive orchestral sounds, double-albums, and endless run times. Serious Black, on the other hand, take all that makes the style shine but without any of the cruft. Their songs are lean, picked to the bone and devoid of fat. Standard song structures, simple, catchy choruses, and coming it at just 35 minute runtime, Mirrorworld is a perfect escape for any power metal fans sick of bloat.

7. Eternity’s End – The Fire Within

Taking the exact opposite approach is Eternity’s End, the new supergroup from Christian Münzner. Neoclassical solos, massive choruses, and a collection of some of the best musicians of any super group, this is power metal taken to whole new level. Everything epic all the time.

6. Hyperion – Seraphical Euphony

Hyperion exploded into the collective consciousness this year, and it’s hard not to see why. Their triple-guitar attack is as intense as it is catchy as they worship their forefathers and do them the utmost justice by improving on the old style in just about every way.

5. Spellcaster – Night Hides The World

Portland’s Spellcaster are above description. Their heavy 80s sound somehow never comes close to throwback anything, as they take their spirit from the days when heavy, power, and speed metal were one-in-the-same. Soaring, powerful vocals are at the forefront of emotional yet swaggering sound, and they win the award for best Mad Max-themed song in history.

4. Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia

I’ve gushed plenty about Thrawsunblat over the years, and somehow Joel Violette’s pet project just keeps getting better. Upping the ante with a more massive sound and a risky format (every track close to the ten minute mark), Metachthonia is an ode to the power of nature, music, and storytelling. It’s an instant classic, but takes months of dedication to sink in and reveal itself in all of its complex, emotional glory.

3. Vektor – Terminal Redux

Thrash is, for the most part, a stale genre. There are a handful of original stalwarts still going strong, but even the most consistant bands in the style aren’t really innovating. It’s not entirely their fault, either, as this tried-and-true sound simply doesn’t leave much room for experimentation. Vektor on the other hand, are one of the few innovators on the planet. Injecting their hyper-technical, nonstop barrage of riffage they’re able to take thrash to space and beyond. It’s a shame the lineup that recorded this masterpiece has already imploded, but even without anything more Vektor have solidified their place in metal history with Terminal Redux.

2. Take Over and Destroy – Take Over and Destroy

True chameleons, TOAD were able to fuse just about every metal genre into their new sound with a result that’s endlessly listenable, and stupidly fun. Harmonious leads, goth vocals and group chants aren’t things that usually work together, but the Arizona crew are masters at their craft and able to take something that shouldn’t work at all while turning it into a masterpiece of American music.

1. Anagnorisis – Peripeteia

Black metal can be extremely emotional at times, but this autobiographical epic from Kentucky’s Anagnorisis takes those feelings to a new, hyper-personal level. A massive step forward from their previous releases, this is a powerful, engaging work of art. Even without the heart wrenching theme and lyrics (I implore you to discover them for yourself) the music is gripping and powerful, but the meaning behind it turns Peripeteia into something truly masterful. It’s proof that even the ugliest, most intense music can be transformative expressions of the highest order and simultaneously contains hints of hate, hope, and beauty.

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Best of 2015

2015

I think I disappointed myself this year. The obvious lack of writing was one thing, but looking back on the music I acquired I realize I could have done better. The quantity wasn’t too far below normal – 73 purchases of new music in 52 weeks ain’t bad – but what I chose to buy is what I’m disappointed in. While I’m a massive proponent of new, unknown music, I really didn’t focus on it much this year. As you’ll see in my list, much of what I spent my time with isn’t exactly unheard of. Although I may have valid excuses – I’m now living in a different country with a new job – it’s just the sort of end-of-year reflection I needed to get me excited about a new direction.

The other argument is I simply got bored with what was offered. There were an insane amount of follow-ups and new releases from some of my favorite bands that fell short of what I was hoping for. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe this year marked a new stage for me; where the 2-3 year cycle of bands releasing albums has repeated for the first time since I’ve been writing about metal and I was simply numb to it. For just a small taste of what I’m talking about, the new albums from Sigh, Christian Mistress, Vastum, Blind Guardian, Ghost, Fluisteraars, Black Breath, Cattle Decapitation, Istapp, Drudkh, Nocternity, and Marduk all fell too short to make it into my favorites of the year. All of those bands have previously put out music I consider utterly essential, so it was a pretty huge shock for me not to have included any of them on this list.

That’s a pessimistic note to start off on, for sure. But that isn’t to say 2015 didn’t have its gems. Compiling this list took longer than expected, largely because deciding what was worthy seemed to be tougher than ever. Very few of my favorite albums were from bands I thought would blow me away, and most from groups I’d previously never given a fair chance or expected too much of. But that’s okay, as it makes me more excited than ever to seek out that which is new and unknown.

Devotion for the Devil

20. Aegrus – Devotion for the Devil

While hardly newcomers to the Finnish scene, the duo Aegrus put out their first full-length after a decade of haunting the underground. While not particularly groundbreaking, Devotion For the Devil holds high the banner of fellow countrymen like Sargeist and Horna with their no-bullshit approach, raw production, and ear for infectious guitar licks. The self-titled track has one of the best melodies in ages, and that track alone makes this album one of my favorites of the year.

Realm of Sacrifice

19. Vanum – Realm of Sacrifice

If you’re a fan of Ash Borer but always thought their production left too much to the imagination, their side-project Vanum is more than you could ever hope for. The four longform dirges follow the atmospheric black metal guidelines to the letter, but the quality of the recording and the depth of the mournful riffs make Realm of Sacrifice a welcome debut and sets a new standard for the style.

The Dreaming I

18. Akhyls – The Dreaming I

Nightbringer were always just a tad too insane for my tastes. Their unholy talent is unquestionable, but the neverending squall they produce is a bit far removed from what I would consider accessible. But, like Vanum, this year saw a side-project come out with an album containing the same foundation, but wholly more palatable. Still within the Blut Aus Nord recipe of chaos mixed with familiarity, the one-man project exudes dense atmosphere and never-ending intrigue. It’s absorbing and intimidating, without being overly complex. This is what black metal should be.

The Dreaming I

17. Macabre Omen- Gods of War – At War

Paying homage to the Hellenic scene as well as all things Scandinavian and mighty, Macabre Omen’s first album in ten years is an hour-long call to arms of titanic proportions. Treading water somewhere close to black metal, the only true descriptor for Gods of War – At War is epic. Each track holds its own sense of glory and pride, as the enchanting guitars and pummeling drums provide a mighty soundtrack to those marching off to war… or at least reading The Iliad.

Evil Power

16. Deathhammer – Evil Power

In my full review of Evil Power, I gushed about Slayer’s Show No Mercy and how this album is a perfect follow-up to it, albeit 30 years later. It falls under the early 80s definition of extreme metal, when speed, death, black, and thrash were essentially one and the same. This definition also made sure that the bands didn’t take themselves too seriously, and Deathhammer did not break that rule. Evil Power is over-the-top and utterly ridiculous most of the time, but sometimes that’s exactly what metal needs to be.

Execration-Morbid-Dimensions

15. Horrendous – Anareta

Horrendous are on a roll unlike any other band on the planet right now, with three albums in four years all receiving endless praid. I want to say they’re destined for great things, but it’s hard to imagine them improving on what they’ve already accomplished, especially with such a masterfully crafted album as Anareta. It’s dynamic, interesting, and perfectly produced, and proves that it’s possible for bands who start off as throwback imitators can grow into their own after the shedding of skin.

Tormenting The Innocent

14. Bio-Cancer – Tormenting The Innocent

I’ve never been a huge thrash fan. Beyond what the greats did in the 80s and a sprinkling of albums here and there after that, it’s safe to say it’s the most one-dimensional subgenre in extreme metal – as re-thrash scene proves year after year. For a modern thrash band to stick out, they have to be doing something very, very different. And that’s why Bio-Cancer is on this list. The relentless, hyper-speed assault is as batshit insane as it is clever and makes for a stupidly rewarding listen.

Deeper Than Sky

13. VHOL – Deeper Than Sky

Ludicra, Hammers of Misfortune, and Agalloch are some of my favorite metal acts of all time. So their members coming together to lay down some tasty jams sounded like a dream come true when VHOL was first announced. Unfortunately, their debut failed to live up to the hype due to a noticeable lack of hooks and a subpar production. That all changed with the release of Deeper Than Sky. At once tighter and more experimental, it’s the true sound of incredibly talented musicians having fun with no genre restrictions. A bastard combination of d-beat, heavy metal, and black metal, it shows each musician doing what they do best without sounding like anything else.

Out Of The Garden

12. Crypt Sermon – Out Of The Garden

Candlemass are the best thing to ever happen to Doom. Their injection of NWOBHM fun and soaring vocals in what’s typically a depressing and downtempo genre have spawned hundreds of imitators who try to play with the lighter side of darkness. Newcomers Crypt Sermon approach the style better than most, as their debut album about crusaders marching off to war proves. The choruses and hooks are as good as you can find in the genre, and the journey is worthy of dozens of repeated treks.

In Times

11. Enslaved – In Times

As I’ve written many times before and likely will for a long while, I consider Enslaved to be the greatest metal band of all time. Their long, varied career has had almost no missteps, and they’ve consistently challenged the status quo and never put out an album even remotely similar to what any other band in the world is doing. So a new Enslaved album is an event for me. Unfortunately, I found In Times to be the least rewarding album of their current period. That isn’t to say it’s bad, but the second half of the album drags; with all the songs basically the same length and structure, it can be hard to differentiate all that’s going on. But the first half containing some of the best-written songs in their history, it’s still a monster of an album containing world class proggy black metal. But the album shows it might be time for them to try something new.

The Mysterious Ways Of Repetitive Art

10. Chapel of Disease – The Mysterious Ways Of Repetitive Art

The recent spike in atmospheric death metal started by Tribulation and Morbus Chron is still going strong. With a doomier and more esoteric vibe, Germans Chapel of Disease put out a monster of an album with The Mysterious Ways Of Repetitive Art. Containing a myriad of influences, the constant tempo changes and amorphous song structures make for a fascinating listen. It’s unsettling and hard to classify, but it’s one of those albums that crawls deeper under the skin and grabs ahold of your soul.

Second Storm

9. Lancer – Second Storm

Blind Guardian is one of the world’s most beloved power bands. While their most recent releases received gobs of praise, I just couldn’t dig the overly orchestral songs and bombastic approach. Not every track needs to be an opus, guys. While I was still getting over the bad taste Beyond The Red Mirror left in my mouth, I stumbled across Sweden’s Lancer. Their stripped-down approach reminds of German bards in their younger years; straight up power/speed metal with none of the cruft. Second Storm is majestic and fun, without being too concerned with epic song lengths and structures, and they’re already hoping for world fame with their use of ridiculous (but fitting) mascot.

Exercises in Futility

8. Mgła – Exercises in Futility

It’s rare that a no-frills black metal band can make such a big splash on the global stage. Coming across a band as acclaimed as Mgła you would expect something utterly different and singular about them. But there are no gimmicks, no post- anything, no keyboards, or even really any experimentation. But that’s okay! Mgła play black metal, and they do it damn well. III, IV, and V are some of the best songs they’ve ever written, and while the album as a whole doesn’t live up to the legendary With Hearts Towards None, there’s no better album this year that shows off black metal’s glory years without containing an ounce of bullshit.

From Beyond

7. Enforcer – From Beyond

Ah, Enforcer. Solely responsible for reviving my interest in the modern heavy metal scene, they’re still one of the best in the world at what they do. The hooks are never-ending, the glam homages endless. From Beyond may be the most grown-up album of their career, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun. With their songwriting chops proven long ago, they’re starting to explore new ways of doing things and it’s a great ride to witness. If a song like “Farewell” doesn’t convince you – and have you playing air guitar – then it’s likely nothing else this side of the 80s will be satisfying.

The Children of the Night

6. Tribulation – The Children of the Night

Tribulation continue to crawl towards the light on their third full-length. With their debut being a relentless death/thrash assault and their second being an unclassifiable masterpiece dripping with atmosphere, The Children of the Night tones things down a bit. Like the soundtrack to a not-quite horror movie, it contains an existential sense of groove that’s both haunting and devilishly entertaining. I wouldn’t be surprised if they go the way of Opeth in a release or two, but right now they’re riding that transition period flawlessly.

Beautiful And Damned

5. Slægt – Beautiful And Damned

Ten months after their debut full-length, Denmark’s Slægt released this four track EP. What was surprising wasn’t just the short turnaround time, but the fact that the band seemed to completely re-invent themselves in less than a year. While Ildsvanger had its moments, with the atrocious recording quality and lackluster vocals it hardly stood out in the land of raw black metal. Beautiful And Damned, on the other hand, sounds as gorgeous as black metal gets, with infectious riffs standing front and center. Getting rid of their former bad habits, the band now sounds like Dissection with a deep rock-n-roll groove and endless twin guitar harmonies. The songs are relatively short and sweet, spending just enough time developing before evaporating into the ether. Although it’s just a EP, it’s one of the most impressive records of the year.

Illusions in Infinite Void

4. Sacral Rage – Illusions in Infinite Void

In a unique year, Greece’s best metal export wasn’t black. It was the throwback quartet of Sacral Rage, who terrorize the line between technical thrash and speed metal. Although they contain more than a few obvious influences, their new take on what always been a niche sound will hopefully be responsible for making it popular again. I’m usually not one for music videos, but the clip for “A Tyrannous Revolt” does a perfect job of showcasing each musician’s grueling tasks as they power through one of the riffiest songs of the year, and it’s only a small taste of the impressive chops belonging to the young Greeks.

The Revenant King

3. Visigoth – The Revenant King

Sometimes you need to just pump your fist and scream about ghosts and goblins at the top of your voice. And for that, there’s Visigoth. Making the jump to Metal Blade after just a handful of songs, these young Utahns now carry the torch for what it means to be a heavy metal band. Endlessly catchy and entertaining, The Revenant King is loaded with some of the best choruses of the year. Seeing them live on my birthday may have artificially inflated the place of of this album in my heart, but the fact that this is the first records to make me seriously consider playing D&D means it’s something special.

Untitled

2. FALSE – Untitled

Probably the nicest black metal musicians in the world, FALSE finally put out their debut full-length after stunning the scene with their first EP four years ago. Their brand of longform, marathon black metal has only matured along with them, as this album is as close to perfect chaos as can be imagined. There’s hardly a moment to catch your breath as they tear through an hour’s worth of fiery hellscapes that never stray too far from beauty, and the relentless passion coming from such a young band is unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

Under The Red Cloud

1. Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud

Amorphis are a weird beast. One of the most unique and quintessential death metal bands of the 90s, they suddenly transformed themselves around the turn of the millennium into something inexplicable. Shedding most traces of extreme metal, they started playing a sort of melodic, anthemic hard rock with only the occasional hint of death or progressive metal peaking through. While many fans were baffled, they proved themselves with the one-two-three punch of Eclipse, Silent Waters and Skyforger as one of the most dynamic bands around.

But then came an unnecessary re-recording of their early material and the extremely lackluster Beginning of Times and Circle; I assumed they had lost their steam. Which is why I was hesitant to pick up Under the Red Cloud. But still being on an Amorphis high after seeing their Tales From The Thousand Lakes 20th anniversary tour in Germany at the end of 2014 I decided to give them another chance. Holy shit, I’m glad I did.

Right when the first track kicks in it’s clear all they’ve relit the fires in their bellies and not just creating solid songs, but attacking them with an unprecedented ferocity. With an hour runtime including the bonus tracks, it still feels too short. Every track is essential Amorphis, and it plays more like a ‘best of’ than it does a new album decades after they formed. There’s not a single song, hell, or even minute, that feels unnecessary. And it’s not just that they’ve tightened things up and re-learned how to write great songs – they’re still experimenting. The sitar on “Death of a King” and collaboration with Eluveitie mainmain Chrigel Glanzmann on “Tree of Ages” inject enough intrigue to prove they’re still having fun and taking risks. It’s not only the best work of their post-death metal phase, it’s the best record in this amazing band’s 25 year history.

The Spread of Ashes

AshBorer2015

In my mind there have always been two distinct flavors of USBM. On the one side you have the crust-influenced madness of Woe, Ludicra, and Nachtmystium. Those who wear their love of punk on their sleeves and have a flair for experimentation. The other camp is more mystical. The double-digit songs and hypnotic repetition that was born with Weakling proved to be immensely popular and lives on through the likes of Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice, and Yellow Eyes. Of these, I’ve always considered Ash Borer the best. While they have sprinklings of the former group, their epic dirges place them more squarely in the second of these made-up camps. I’ve somehow managed to see them more times than I can count, and their incredible performances only solidified their place in my mind as USBM’s torchbearers.

And while it’s been far too long since their last release, the individual members have been far from silent. 2015 has seen an eruption of side projects churning out incredible music that is easily traced back to their core sound. The following were all released in the past few months and contain at least one Ash Borer member.

Vanum


The highest profile name on this list, Vanum recently released their debut on Profound Lore. It’s a shock they haven’t garnered more attention, as the band is clearly of the highest quality and very much aligned with the rest of the label’s roster. Very similar to Ash Borer, Vanum play a slightly-atmospheric form of black metal; albeit with more polish and a couple minutes trimmed from the song lengths. Nods to post-rock seep through occasionally, with songs varying as they still stay rooted. This is a shining continuation of a sound the members helped create.

Predatory Light


Possibly the best extreme metal band that has ever come out of Seattle, Anhedonist’s brand of meloncholic death/doom was a revelation, so it was a major blow to our local scene when they called it quits. So when their former bassist joined forces with Ash Borer’s Kyle Morgan, it was an exciting announcement. And their union sounds uncannily like the two bands fused together. The dreary, heavy assault has a clear sheen of black metal mixed in that should appeal to fans of all things murky and punishing. Their recent split with Vorde, who in turn play longform black metal with a touch of psychedelia, is a fantastic collaboration.

Uškumgallu


Focusing on the more intense side of Ash Borer’s influence, Uškumgallu go right for the throat with their more simplistic attack. A punk flavor occasionally erupts for a brief period or two, a great complement to the bleak nature of their sound. The production on this demo is murky at best, but it’s clear that was intention.

Serum Dreg


With the same two members as Uškumgallu, Serum Dreg sees them switching duties slightly for a wholly different sound. Ethereal yet intense, they take on a death metal structure while playing an interesting form of black metal that’s clearly influenced by sludge and crust. What sound like interesting guitar riffs are hidden beneath overpowering bass and and reverbed vocals, but at least they’re taking risks with their mix—a rarity in this type of music.

The overwhelming number of projects emerging from the Ash Borer camp shows the members at the height of their creative output. I can’t wait to see that energy captured together when the band works as one again.